My foray into sustainable beauty was less a dipped toe and more of a cannonball into the crunchy-granola deep end. I was 21, broke, and newly immersed in literature about our food system's tremendous impact on the environment and decided that by extension, DIY'ing my beauty routine would support both of these causes. That ultimately meant giving up shampoo for nearly two years.
Five years later, my fervor for the planet remains, and somehow, my vanity looks incredibly different. While this is, in part, a testament to an ever-expanding market of innovative, plant-based beauty products, it also reflects my deeper understanding of what sustainability actually looks like in this industry. While I know firsthand how easy it is to assume that a largely natural ingredient label adds up to a superior product, the most innovative brands on the market right now operate under a different doctrine: that while plant-based ingredients are to be revered, harvesting them en masse can be hugely detrimental to the planet. That's not to mention that when they aren't used with care, many botanicals aren't even all that great for your skin.
"I think that most consumers assume that because something is natural or nature-derived that means it is both safe and/or sustainable," says Chase Polan, the founder of sustainably minded skincare label Kypris. "Both assumptions are incorrect. For example, essential oils from plants, when misused, can cause horrible burns or reactions. Another concern is that these natural ingredients can require tremendous amounts of plant material in order to create the ingredients. When something is grown, arable land, water, and a workforce must be dedicated to their care and procurement. This can have a myriad of implications for the resources, environment, and geopolitics of a region."
Kypris is one of a handful of innovative skincare brands sitting at this intersection of efficacy and environmentalism—something that Polan and her peers hope to establish as a new gold standard in a very noisy beauty market. I'd certainly argue that we're headed in that direction, if the mess of new-to-me products currently obscuring my desk is any indication. I wonder, however, if the chief obstacle facing these pioneers is convenience fueled by misinformation. "Natural" is a term that is unregulated by the FDA, for example, but believing a brand that touts itself as such is certainly easier than researching every ingredient listed on the label—let alone the ethics and geopolitical impact of the brand's manufacturing processes.
But perhaps it needn't be so complicated. Polan believes that we can all become more conscious consumers without necessarily knowing the ins and outs of sustainable algae production. For me, that means supporting the brands that are painstakingly transparent about their manufacturing methods—as well as recognizing that some synthetic ingredients are actually safer and eco-friendlier than their natural counterparts. Honestly, my complexion and my carbon footprint are all the better for it.
Still, understanding some of common myths surrounding "natural" beauty and sustainability is an important baseline before you start repopulating your vanity. Keep reading to know what to look out for.
To be clear, our tendency toward "all-natural" is definitely a positive thing.
Appreciating our planet is a welcome reaction to our highly industrialized world, especially in the face of urgent concerns about global warming and dwindling natural resources. "The obsession with 'all-natural' is the result of a desire to walk gently upon the Earth by removing toxins from our lives, as well as a growing recognition and appreciation for our vital relationship with nature," says Polan.
Science tells us that fostering this relationship isn't just positive for the environment but for our own health as well. "Studies show that simply surrounding ourselves with greenery and trees can reduce stress and anxiety, improve hospital outcomes, and change our blood chemistry," adds Polan.
However, it's important to question how brands source their natural ingredients.
The planet has so much information to offer in the realm of natural medicine, but its actual resources are very finite—and exploiting them only exacerbates climate change. "Nature is extraordinary when it comes to creating biological diversity," says Polan. "Nature is less effective when it comes to repeatability and material efficiency. These are important factors to consider when it comes to results-driven, sustainable skincare."
This is why brands like Kypris utilize biotechnology to create ingredients that mimic these natural components. I turned my nose up at "synthetics" for many years before understanding that in some cases, they are the safer and more sustainable option.
"We use several ingredients created from green biotechnology because of their reliable efficacy and sustainability," says Polan. "We use an algae extract that is wildcrafted from Hawaii and then propagated in a lab. This limits the potential for disrupting a delicate ecosystem not to mention minimizes safety risks for those harvesting the botanicals. In the case of our prized CoQ10, it would be nonsensical to extract this from salmon or sardines. Instead, an engineered yeast creates the shelf-stable bioidentical antioxidant."
It's not just about ingredients, either.
The chemistry of a product is just one component of its overall global footprint. There are other parts of the manufacturing process to consider, including the people who are implicated in its production. "Some of these ingredients are simply dangerous to harvest," says Polan. "The threats can be the plants themselves like in the case of prickly pear in Arizona or Morocco, or a human threat due to the preciousness of the material like with vanilla in Madagascar. Or with both, as is true with frankincense in Somalia."
It's worth asking: How do your favorite brands support their workers and by extension, their communities? What steps do they take to recycle and minimize water usage? The labels that care about these things tend to be transparent about it, so becoming a more enlightened consumer might be as simple as perusing their websites.
Conscious consumption doesn't require perfectionism.
While I think swapping shampoo for apple cider vinegar earned me an A for effort, the monk-like habits I adopted at the start of my sustainable beauty journey ultimately weren't… well, sustainable. (They were, however, quite smelly.) Instead, my skincare routine now reflects the brands I've come to love and trust—the vast majority of which are very eco-minded, some more than others.
The point is that we can be armed with the knowledge to make informed purchases without completely driving ourselves crazy. That starts with questioning any brands that encourage this black-and-white thinking of "all-natural" versus synthetic—or the implied "good" versus "bad." Instead, you can use your dollar to support brands that empower you to make more conscientious choices without ever bringing guilt into the equation.